Friday, October 24, 2014

Biding my time

The last half of the day before vacation always seems to drag. I don't really want to delve into anything complicated, but I've taken care of the softball stuff already, except for reviewing a packet of paperwork that may or may not hit my in basket before I leave.

Eh, it will be waiting for me when I return.

This week, instead of making a long list of the things I want and/or need to do, I'm going to keep track of the things that actually happen. It's a bit cheerier, more optimistic way of looking at the to-do list, and a good reminder of the things that were done just for the fun of it all.

Sewing is high on the "fun of it all". In fact, tomorrow and Sunday I'm taking an advanced machine quilting class that promises to be both interesting and a brain-loosener. Playing with new patterns and funky threads on a sample piece is much less stressful than trying the technique out on an actual project, and has the added benefit of jump starting the creative center of my brain.

For today, I can put two things on the "accomplished" list already:

1. Clean desk at work
2. Put out of office notification on e-mail

Hey - I never claimed these would be earth-shattering accomplishments. Just the fact that I remembered to do the second one is a miracle. The desk is actually organized for when I come back, complete with a list of what will need to be done first.

Eighty-seven minutes, not that I'm counting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A puzzle

The unit next door to me has been vacant since April of 2012. The unit is a mirror image of mine, with both of our patios in between. The wall that faces the patio is mostly glass - patio doors on the first floor, giant windows reaching to the roof line above.

In the early mornings, I'm accustomed to seeing my own reflection in those windows as I go down the stairs to the first floor. This morning, however, was different: it appeared lights were on in the vacant unit.

Sure enough, a peek through the patio door curtains revealed a weak light shining through the blinds next door. What's up with that?

No car in the underground parking, so if someone was actually in the unit, they parked in the visitor spaces (hard to tell if someone new was parked there - the visitor spaces are intermixed with spaces belonging to neighbors, who have single car garages and a space outside for a second car).

Tiptoeing through the internets revealed a couple of things:

1. The unit is no longer listed for sale on MLS, at least not that my fairly proficient skills could find. It was listed as late as a week ago, for a bargain price.

2. The owner listed on the city property records as of September 2013 is FNMA.

Conclusion: The unit may be coming up in a foreclosure auction soon, and the mortgage company is making sure the place at least looks decent, and has both heat (it's cold here) and light.

While it would be nice to have neighbors on that side, an auction will further drive down the resale value of our units, already much lower than they were due to the economy, and, frankly, my own owners-want-to-sell-in-a-hurry purchase three years ago. An identical unit is for sale in a nearby building, for about what I paid. It's a corner unit, which should make it a bit more desirable.

Anyway, exciting times, at least for me.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

All set for the week ahead

Made pumpkin soup with basil yesterday - four servings left.

Cooked a small acorn squash this afternoon, enough for some with dinner tonight and a bit for a couple of lunches.

The salisbury steak is on the last simmer in the gravy, and the dinner rolls are in the oven. There's enough for four, maybe five servings of leftovers of the steak.

The prep dishes are mostly washed, and the previous three strainers full of washed dishes put away. My hands are a bit wrinkly still.

I don't plan to set foot in the kitchen, except to reheat something, until at least Wednesday.

The two packages of hamburger I used were the last of the "big" packages of stuff in the freezer, I think. The rest of the freezer is full of individually packaged (or repackaged, if I bought in bulk) chicken breast, salmon, turkey Italian sausage and a small steak or two. Well, there are a couple of turkey drumsticks, to cook up for soup. And a very small, very lonely oxtail. Operation Cook It Up is going very well.

Leftovers for lunch, especially this time of year when the leftovers tend to be warm things like salisbury steak, chili and casseroles, really makes the day. If I work it right, lunch is the larger meal of the day, and I can just zap some (home made and frozen) soup for dinner.

Tomorrow night after work I need to stop to pick up some potatoes. I discovered when I pulled out the bag I had to make the potato-gratin this afternoon that the potatoes had...mostly gone south. There weren't enough to make the full gratin, and I'm not sure they would even have made it to a half recipe. Since the leeks are already washed and chopped, I'd like to give this recipe a try. Besides, it's covered in melted Swiss cheese, one of life's biggest blessings.

At some point, I really need to start having people over again. The last time I fed anyone was during the murder mystery, and I deliberately kept the food really simple.

Laundry got done this weekend as well, though it's still waiting for me to make a trip to the basement to get it. I'm prewashing some pretty batik fabrics as well, and those need to be moved over to the dryer.

Except for the fact that zero of the much needed cleaning has yet been done this weekend, I've been pretty domestic. I even, on impulse, took fifteen minutes to clear out the cupboard above the coffeemaker, where the coffee, filters, mugs, flavorings, "company" tray and packages of instant cocoa live. Does that count as "real" cleaning?

I'm off to do some serious nothing until Once Upon a Time starts...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Later evening

I cannot tell a lie: I never intended to even try to read for the entire 24 hours. For one, at some point around hour fifteen (or earlier, given how much I'd be using my eyes) I would have to take out my contact lenses. Now, I have two pair of wonderful no-line bifocals, but I've discovered that once the contacts are out, I'm pretty much done seeing anything. My poor eyes figure removing those hard pieces of plastic is the signal to relax.

It's been difficult to focus today. Once I came home, I read at the computer upstairs for a bit, then wandered downstairs about one o'clock with a vague idea of making that pumpkin soup for lunch. Well, I sat down in a chair and picked up the kindle...

...two and a half hours later, I decided I'd better get something in me quickly (once my blood sugar starts to go low, it drops pretty quickly, and while I could just eat a granola bar to get it up, I much prefer eating something tasty), so I headed off to the local Albanian-American restaurant.

Yes, Albanian-American. We have lots of local places run by the Greeks, but to my knowledge, this is the only Albanian run joint. They carry a few ethnic dishes, but I've yet to try them. Today, it was a chicken philly sandwich with french fries, all of which I ate with a fork because 1) messy, messy sandwich with lots of slide-y peppers and onions covered in very hot cheese, and 2) I needed one hand free to hold the kindle.

Back home again, another hour or so of reading (while watching the last couple episodes of the last season of The Walking Dead - not exactly the best reading environment, but I tend to do this a lot). I finally decided around six p.m. I should take care of some of the cooking stuff I've been putting off.

I made the pumpkin soup detailed here. It's my go-to pumpkin recipe, one that highlights the taste of the squash without being overwhelmingly pumpkinish. As I went, I washed dishes. No matter how efficient you try to be, you still end up with two saucepans and the food processor to wash.

While the soup was on the final simmer, I trimmed and cleaned a couple of leeks. They are in the onion family, though considerably milder. They look much like a green onion, though one that has been eating its Wheaties and bulking up for the season. I ate (and read, and watched Call the Midwife) while they drip dried. After dinner they were sliced and put away for tomorrow, when the plan is to finally make up the salisbury steak (in a wonderful mushroom gravy) and a potato-leek gratin. Between that and the soup, I won't have to cook for lunches or dinners until at least Thursday.

I'm going to read for a little bit yet tonight, but my eyes are rapidly approaching the state where I would do anything just to take.the.contacts.OUT.

From the time I learned to read my first word (C-A-T, which is a bit ironic considering I'm deathly allergic to them)(and by the way, we didn't start to learn to read until we entered first grade) I've been an avid reader. No pocket of time is too small not to dip into a book for a bit. Since the advent of the kindle, and the availability of reader apps on the phone, I'm never without dozens of books from which to pick. Heaven.

Midmorning update

It is a rainy, dreary day in southeastern Wisconsin, perfect for reading. I began the day at Panera, where my order (placed on-line just before I left home) hit the pick up rack as I walked in.

I've put a couple of pictures up on Twitter (@quiltbabe). It's too complicated to post from the Kindle Fire to the blog, and I didn't want to bring the laptop with me this morning.

First book up was Holley Gerth's What Your Heart Needs for the Hard Days, the devotional I'm working through.

Moved on to Sadie Hudson's A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet, a charming, delightful set of stories about growing up in the South, or as the subtitle says, "Southern Stories of Faith, Family and Fifteen Pounds of Bacon". This would be a reread, but as wonderful as it is, I only made it through a few chapters. Not quite the right "feel" for the day, if you know what I mean.

Took a small break, and opened up Cottage Journal Seasons' Christmas edition, which landed on the Kindle early this week. Oh my, the eye candy (words, too - there are articles to read!). Such beautiful "cottages" decorated in creative and inspiring ways...well, inspired if you have the cash to buy the decorations and the time and decorator's eye to put them out. Still, I did get a few ideas, if only of what I can't do, given my space, current decorating style and budget. What I will take away from the magazine, though, is a wonderful recipe for chocolate and almond topped home made caramel squares. Yum. Too bad I can't whip them up for a snack for this afternoon.

Moved on to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Most years, I reread it about this time. It is, quite simply, the perfect read for a rainy October day.

"It seemed when the first stroke of nine banged from the big courthouse clock all the lights were on and business humming in the shops. But by the time the last stroke of nine shook everyone's fillings in his teeth, the barbers had yanked off the sheets, powdered the customer, trotted them forth; the druggist's fount had stopped fizzing like a nest of snakes, the insect neons everywhere had ceased buzzing, and the vast guttering acreage of the dime store with its ten billion metal, glass and paper oddments waiting to be fished over, suddenly blacked out. Shade slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels."

See what I mean?

Since no yardwork can be done in the rain, everyone else in the city decided to go to Panera to meet some friends for breakfast and coffee. That's wonderful - but the volume of talk rapidly increased to the point where reading was difficult, no matter how good I usually am at tuning out background noise (my favorite place to read is a fairly noisy coffee place). So I'm back home, since, judging by the parking lots, Starbucks is just as crowded. I didn't have the patience to try some of the independent places, and at the time, Barnes and Noble wasn't open yet.

I'm at the computer in the loft, on the too-messy-to-photograph desk, with a small snack and several hours before I need to start thinking about making lunch. If you want me, I'll be running with Jim and Will in Green Town, Illinois.

And - we're off

Still predawn around here. It's 5:20, and I'm about to get dressed, with the idea of being at Panera when they open at six. Starting my personal read-a-thon a bit early.

This is my favorite time of day. The house is a little bit chilly, it's quiet outside, everything holding its breath in anticipation of the day.

I'm still not up to snuff (last night I was watching the clock, waiting for it to be after 7 p.m. so I could go to bed without feeling like a ninety year old), but I'll give it my best shot.

Besides, any time spent reading is a true pleasure.

Better get moving. I've just put in my order on-line at Panera. Don't want it to get cold!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Survival prepper

No, not the end-of-days-is-coming-apocalypse-now-hoard-all-the-cans-of-beans-and-ammo kind of prepper. Survival of the autumn Read-a-thon.

To read some of the posts about participants' current and past preparations for a twenty-four hour marathon of reading, you would not be faulted for thinking they were, indeed, the other kind of prepper. Lists of books, stockpiling of snacks, pre-read-a-thon house cleaning, clearing of schedules, announcements to family, friends and work not to interrupt and all sorts of other things are on the agenda for quite a few participants.

Me? Eh.

Last spring, my first time, I settled in with a quintet of books - the Fire and Ice series from George R.R. Martin on which the series Game of Thrones is based. Five books, even though I was already almost through the first one, would surely last me the day in spite of my lightening fast reading pace for fiction. I spent most of the day in various coffee shops, because a) didn't have to look at the not-clean house and feel guilty, and b) people brought me food and drink without me having to do anything except hand over my debit card.

This time I'm doing things a bit differently (no, the house will still not be clean for this event).

1. Reading material - I've been saving up the kindle editions of Real Simple and Cottage Journal Seasons for this event. They are both holiday editions, feasts for the eyes as well as fairly decent reading material. I've one other holiday magazine, a Better Homes and Gardens picked up at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago, that I will also use for light reading.

The Mitford Bedside Companion, in paper form, is in the stack. Jan Karon's series of novels about a country town Episcopal priest are sweet, light reading full of memorable characters. This book excerpts some of the novels, but also includes new essays and reflections from the author. Again, it's perfect for those times my focus wanders and my brain needs a break.

Embracing Obscurity is my current non-fiction read. It's highly doubtful I'll be done with it before Saturday; it will be first on the nonfiction stack.

Holley Gerth's What Your Heart Needs for the Hard Days is the devotional I'm currently using. This will most likely be my starting point for the day.

But what to use for a sustained fiction read? Someone posted a link to NPR's list of fifty of the books on the list for the 2014 National Book Award. Much of the list is politically correct twaddle, but one caught my eye.

According to Amazon, "An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity."

Actors, the apocalypse (caused by a raging flu decimating 98% of the world's population in days), a character with a line from Star Trek tattooed on her arm ("Because survival is insufficient") - what can go wrong?

Well, a whole lot. We'll see - this is currently on my Amazon wish list, and I've yet to decide whether or not to buy it.

There's an unread Elmo Jenkins trilogy (picked up for free some time past) on the kindle that may provide some sustained reading time. We'll see - so many choices available in the backlog on my kindle, plus so much temptation available at the click of the "buy now" at Amazon.

2. Food and snacks - I'll most likely begin the day at Panera, as I love breakfast but hate to cook it (really, hot pans and grease before I've had my coffee?). Move to Starbucks midmorning or earlier, for a second dose of coffee. Back home for lunch, which, if I get myself moving after work today, should be leftover salisbury steak and either maple/brown sugar acorn squash or potato-leek gratin. Lots of water in the afternoon, along with some popcorn, maybe, upstairs at my desk. Again, if I get myself together the night before, I'll have had a soup simmering in the crock pot to have for dinner along with some rolls purchased whilst I was at Panera that morning. Evening reading in front of the fire with a carafe of hot chocolate and home made apple crisp.

3. Naps and other responsibilities - Not that naps are a responsibility...though one may happen. I find that I can only spend so long sitting and reading before I really, really need to move for a while. Audio books are not my thing (I can't sustain focus on them - my mind wanders and I'm constantly rewinding to hear what I missed), so listening while walking isn't much of an option. But it only takes ten minutes to vacuum the living room, and less to empty the dishwasher. Once I'm home after lunch, I expect to be doing some of that to keep the blood flowing.

It still strikes me as funny that we are making "preparations" to read all day. While I admit the time frame is longer than is usual for some, it shouldn't be this big of a deal. If you are a true reader, you squeeze it in any time, any place you can. Standing in line. Waiting for  dentist appointment. On the bus. At lunch at work. While you are waiting for the pasta water to boil.

In the days before electronic readers, my one undying requirement in a new purse was that it had a handy, exterior pocket big enough for a paperback book. I had one on me at all times.

So, less than 48 hours to go until the start. I certainly won't read for 24 hours - I like my sleep - but I'd like to beat my spring total of about 14 hours.

Monday, October 13, 2014

An actual food picture in a food post!

Ignore the 1970's harvest gold countertop; concentrate on
the 1970's comfort food.
Wow - an actual food picture! This is the 1960's or 1970's comfort food, a chicken biscuit casserole. This was Sunday's dinner, plus lunches for today and tomorrow (and would have been for Wednesday, too, if I hadn't been ravenous yesterday because I'd skipped a real lunch).

The topping, as you can see, consists of refrigerated buttermilk biscuits. When I'm not in a hurry, I've made them from scratch rather than use the canned variety (the original recipe used all the available shortcuts - canned biscuits, canned peas, canned carrots, canned beans...we can do so much better today, with only a little more work).

Underneath the biscuity goodness is a creamy white sauce filled with onions, peas, carrots, green beans and (already cooked and diced - this is a great recipe for leftovers) chicken. I deviated a bit from the recipe and added few chopped up mushrooms. Prep is simple. Saute the onions in 2 tablespoons of butter. Add half a cup of flour and cook for a bit, stirring constantly. Add 1/2 cup milk plus about 1 1/2 cups chicken broth (I ended up adding more, as I put more than the called for quantities of "stuff" in, and everything got very thick in a hurry). Stir and cook until it's bubbly and thickened a bit. Add the carrots, peas, beans and chicken and stir to combine. Split the biscuits in half horizontally (I don't bother, I just leave the dish in the oven a bit longer to make sure the biscuits cook all the way through) and lay on top. Pop in a 375 degree oven for twenty minutes or until the biscuits are well browned.

I love the enamel over cast iron cookware, especially for things like this that start stove top and end in the oven. No washing a pot plus a casserole dish. If you bring the pot to the table to serve from, the food inside stays warm quite a bit longer thanks to cast iron's heat retentive properties. Considering you can't use abrasives to scrub them out, they clean up pretty easily as well.

This is also an unusual french oven. The usual shape for one this size is a smaller diameter, with higher sides. Have I mentioned I'm short? So short, in fact, that I can't see into the 6 quart stock pot when it sits on the front burner of the stove unless I stand on my toes. This particular french oven - and only the one in this volume - is available in a bigger diameter, with correspondingly lower sides. Yay for someone who understands short cooks!

Maybe more pictures if the next few nights' cooking turns out the way I hope.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pumpkin guts and prep work

If I were keeping to my commitment to post this month on food stuff, this would be the part where I tell you about the pie pumpkin, and how it helps to bundle prep work.

Oh heck, why not. No pictures though; the kitchen counter is just a bit too messy to immortalize, and besides, I have pumpkin guts on my hands...

As I mentioned earlier, in with the groceries this week was a cute little pie, or sugar pumpkin. They are considerably different from their larger, grown-to-be-carved-not-eaten cousins. For one, aside from the much smaller size, they are sweeter, and less fibrous.

The flesh also tastes much, much better than canned pumpkin. It's worth the time to roast a few, mash the pulp and freeze it for future goodies.

Four years ago, I shared a microwave method of cooking pumpkin. Last week, I stumbled upon an easier way to deal with hard skins and slimy guts.

Poke your pumpkin 5 - 10 times around the stem area with a fork, creating holes for steam to escape. While you are taking out your frustrations on the gourd, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the pumpkin on a baking sheet (line with foil for no-mess cleanup of the pan - you can also use the foil to wrap up the leftover bits of skin and guts)(now if that doesn't make me sound like a serial killer...). Slide the pan into the oven and let the pumpkin roast for 45 - 60 minutes. To test if it's cooked enough, poke at it with your finger; it should yield easily.

Take it out of the oven and let cool for half an hour. At the end of that time, you may be able to just pull the stem out; whether or not it comes out, slice the gourd in half. I sliced mine in quarters, the easier to scrape out the innards, but do what you will. The seeds and fibers scrape out easily with a spoon. The flesh itself comes out just as easily. All it needs is some mashing or pureeing to the texture you need.

Since this method bypasses any need to handle slimy pumpkin guts, I may do this much more often.

There was more room in the oven, so I slid a small pan of boneless, skinless chicken breasts in as well. This is where the "bundling prep work" concept comes in. I find it much less frustrating, when making multiple dishes, to do all the prep work for all the dishes on one day, then do all the actual cooking on the next. Most things will keep a day or two in the refrigerator, if stored correctly.

The squash is destined for soup, with any leftovers used for bread. The chicken is going to be transformed into a half recipe of a favorite chicken, rice and cheese casserole. Or maybe chicken biscuit stew. Or chicken divan. Or, if I remember to pick up a couple of things at the store tomorrow, chicken with wild rice soup.

Hmm. I think I need to cook and shred a lot more chicken, to have on hand in the freezer.